Toni del Renzio: Dementia Praecox and Poetry

Toni del Renzio: A Too Brief Memoire

I first met Toni in 1993 at Conroy Maddox’s 80th birthday party. By the time I met him I already knew a little of his history, his aristocratic origins in Italy, his attempt to stimulate surrealism in Britain and his feud with E.L.T. Mesens. I found him friendly and sympathetic, quite lacking that air of superiority that some elders’ assume in the presence of young pretenders. We remained in contact and then three years later renewed our acquaintance at the Surrealist Visuality conference at Keele. Although present, until he stood up to speak on the final day of the conference, he seemed  rather put in the shade by the reputation of his late ex-wife Ithel Colquhoun.

From then on we stayed in touch, meeting occasionally and once I was invited to his birthday party. Resplendent in dinner jacket, he stroked his pet rat and regaled a few of us with anecdotes that, if one did not know Toni’s history, would assume he had completely lost it. His tales involved Russian agents and Goldfinger, that is, the modernist architect Erno Goldfinger, who gave his name to Fleming’s villain. Goldfinger was a Stalinist, and shopped Toni to the MI5 as Toni was a Trotskyist. A fuller account can be found in the links below:

A couple of years on again and I met him at Conroy Maddox’s funeral. By now I was a member of the London Surrealist Group and Toni showed a lively interest.  Later that Spring several of us were present at his 90th birthday party, held at Mayor Gallery. He was very eager to show us his continued commitment to surrealism and we decided to invite him to join the group.

This act seemed to heal an ancient wound in Toni. Although he was, by now a little infirm, and had to be accompanied to London by his sons, he attended several group meetings at the Seven Stars pub and read the text published here at an evening of readings we held at Treadwell’s Bookshop in late 2005. At ninety, Tony was, by far, the oldest member of the group and the youngest was just 17. Unfortunately, a split occurred in the group shortly afterwards and Toni was unable to meet with us as we attempted to restart our activities. When I next met him, a few months later, in the spring of 2006, he seemed much older and weaker, and then was unable to meet him again for a few months. In the Autumn I was asked to go and see him in Ramsgate. By now he was in hospital and near death. When I arrived I found him delirious and not really knowing I was there, but when one of his sons made a grammatical error he suddenly snapped into focus and crossly corrected him. He died in January 2007.

The text reproduced here, and the accompanying collage should have been included in the third issue of our journal Arcturus. It was the victim of the split in the group and for a long time we did not have the resources to get it into print and Arcturus fell by the wayside for quite a while. When we decided to put some of the material for the third issue online, alongside newer works, we knew we would have to publish Toni’s essay. Therefore the occasion of this publication is to honour the fervent wishes of Toni del Renzio, once again to find himself among surrealist comrades.

Stuart Inman


The Denizens of the Mind

toni_del_renzio_collageEarlier this year I began to write a surrealist tract – a declaration of principles and intents which led me, in its final paragraph, to confront a phenomenon that had always intrigued me and which had also appeared, from the founding members of the surrealist group on, an aspect of the human unconscious and a contributing factor to surrealist poetics, perhaps at its most evident in Breton and Eluard’s Immaculée Conception, the ambiguous status of the Ego!  It was, and, of course, still remains a consequence of the autonomy of the diverse elementsthat are locked in perpetual antagonistic cooperation and cut right across the Freudian Triad, the Ego, Id and Super-Ego which had always seemed more the result of casuistry than any questioning of the mind’s structure and affectivity.  It seemed to suggest the unconscious was not just the residence of one single, possibly unique persona but, rather, the stomping-ground of many, deeper and darker entities, of which the Ego might, at best, be only one, and that, even, a hotly disputed place and this above all else made, in surrealist eyes, egocentrism such an unacceptable attribute.  Moreover, this multiplicity of the mind’s occupying entities, in permanent conflict and mutual restraint could be seen as the mechanism that produces what we have come to view as typical surrealist imagery, and with respect to this the parity with the cadaver exquis is significant, one more example of the creative contribution of surrealist ludic experience.

It is the ever varying complexity that endows the images with their startling unmediated presence, their surreality, the inevitability of their clash that authenticates the unity that is always more than just the sum of the parts and suggests the Freudian Triad is less than sufficient to explain the workings of the unconscious and breaks out of the circle, vicious or not, of the psychoanalytical argument, long suggesting the curriculum for a rapprochement with a less rigid, though no less rigorous behaviourism, not yet, I fear, under way, but still to be formalised from fleeting fragmented tentatives.  But these still constitute uncharted territories, familiar, nonetheless, to poets who have stalked inspiration across the forbidden landscapes of primeval conflict where they uncover the inscrutable elements of broken dreams, the characteristic and affective productions of the psyche at its most vulnerable in the vulgarity of Dali as in the sublimity of the breath-stopping structures of Les Chants de Maldoror, particularly in the marvellous similes that, early on, surrealism discovered and claimed its own, “Beautiful as the chance meeting of an umbrella and a sewing machine upon a dissecting table”.

But, more and more, as I have considered this phenomenon, not just recently but over the years, now, I reckon, rather more than seventy, it required deeper and thorough investigation and recognition of its crucial role in the poetry and other works that gained surrealism its begrudged reputation that every literary fly-by-night has sought to destroy while stealing what they neither understand nor are able to simulate, and surrealism, to the contrary, has enshrined within the canon of its operations.  Furthermore, should my thoughts prove to be merely suggestive or assertive, there still remains much evidence that the phenomenon is a fecund factor within surrealist poetics.  It seems, very strongly, indeed, to me, that the mind must be the site not of just one psychic entity, simple and incontestable, the ego, but, rather, of a whole band, struggling one with another no less than with exterior reality, to create the unconscious personality that is only rarely permitted to hoist itself into the arenas of the mind where it suborns thought’s process with the weapons of logical inconsistency raising the non sequiturs to the imperious questioning of, “Why not?”  At this glittering height the many, distinct and incompatible participants in the struggle in the mind to reach expression, at some point betwixt coherence and incoherence, are more or less indistinguishable, at best, forcing an ill-considered figuration into the characteristics of style that the best poets have always cultivated and only the rarest individuals have been able to pursue, freed of any reservation or evasion or even inhibition.  This long literary process wriggled into pre-eminence with the struggle, almost throughout the nineteenth century, to establish a romantic trend more and more untamed by the expectations of literature opening the doors to the unexpected producing that frisson, alone seen to determine the trajectory along which poetry hurtled into orbit, never again to settle into any accommodation with tradition.  Blake and the more vigorous among the romantics in England, and the undisciplined maul of French poets like Gerard de Nerval, who crowded the walkways, previously considered only the uncultivated verges of literature, hurried an unsuspecting world into modernism.  Baudelaire, with Rimbaud hot on his heels, broke rambunctiously with the literary establishment and broke, too, fresh ground in which to cultivate a poetry for which Isidore Ducasse, “Comte de Lautréamont”, quite independently, as far as one knows, wrote the new rulebook, Poésies, more from observation of the current practices around him than from any notions of prescriptive directions for the immediate future and any evasion of the sentimental moeurs of romanticism sunk into its dotage and decadence, although unaware he was laying the foundations of surrealism.

Toni del Renzio


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